The Toronto Blue Jays have long been mired in a holding pattern of third-place finishes and 80-win seasons. While this consistency would generally mean a lot for most clubs, the Jays have a steep hill to climb in the talent-heavy AL East. The point has been belabored over recent years, but it cannot be stressed enough: To win the AL East you must rank among baseball’s elite. It isn’t good enough to be “competitive” or “talented”—the winner of the division is automatically a World Series contender.
In the case of the Jays, the stars seem to finally be aligning. They have a general manager who is seen as one of the brightest minds in the game in Alex Anthopoloulos. They have a fresh, yet well-respected skipper in John Farrell. And they have a solid nucleus of talent, built around Jose Bautista, which can compete with any team in baseball on any given night. Coupled with one of the most highly touted development systems in the game, it finally seems as though Toronto is ready to start breaking down the division door instead of hanging around on the porch.
Let’s look at five questions that could make or break the Jays’ 2012 season:
Will Brandon Morrow step up in the rotation?
It’s no secret to anyone who has seen him pitch that Brandon Morrow is electric. With a fastball that regularly hits the mid-90s, a devastating curve/slider combination and quality offspeed pitches, Morrow has all the tools to be a top-flight pitcher in the American League. The question is: Will he take that step?
To say Morrow frustrated the Jays and their fans last season is a huge understatement. In his first season, Morrow showed why Toronto was so committed to him in multiple games, including a start against Tampa Bay in which he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. He looked just about ready for prime time. In 2011, he showed he was not quite there yet: His season was a classic case of “one step forward, two steps back.” For every dominating performance was another one which involved erratic pitch location, plenty of walks and the dreaded home run ball. The 2012 season is big for the development of Morrow.
Morrow’s pitching drastically improved toward the tail end of 2011 once he added a cutter to his arsenal. He appeared much more comfortable on the hill and looked downright dominant at times. Ideally for the Jays he will become the second half of a dominant top of the rotation with Ricky Romero holding down his part. Morrow’s maturation as a pitcher will have a big influence on how many games the Jays can win over the course of his 30 starts.
Who forms the back of the rotation?
The final three rotation spots were a point of great frustration for the Jays in 2011 as, while Romero and Morrow held down the top two spots, the final three were essentially a revolving door. Starters included Jo-Jo Reyes, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Carlos Villanueva, Henderson Alvarez, Jesse Litsch and on and on. The door cannot keep revolving in 2012.
The Jays will be looking to the likes of Cecil, Alvarez and comeback player of the year candidate Dustin McGowan to anchor the back of the rotation. Alvarez is the wild card of the bunch, largely due to his youth, but Cecil and McGowan have both proven that they can win games at the big league level. Drabek and fellow prospect Deck McGuire will also be in the mix out of spring training and the Jays wouldn’t mind at all if their hand was forced by one of the kids.
Which Colby Rasmus will show up?
Each lineup has its X factor that could push the team from the realm of “good” to “very good” and beyond. For the Blue Jays it’s hard not to identify that X factor as Colby Rasmus. When they acquired him in July, the transaction was meant to add a player with boundless potential in desperate need of a fresh start to their lineup. Rasmus got his fresh start and put up mixed results before an injury finished his season prematurely. Now it’s time to find out what the Jays have in their 26-year-old outfielder.
Rasmus’ tenure in Toronto got off to a rough start: It took him four games to register a hit with his new team. He did show flashes, though, with some impressive home runs to give fans an idea of the power he brings with him in that bat. Despite the occasional moments of brilliance, it would be hard to characterize his start with the Jays as a success given his general aimlessness at the plate. Rasmus recorded 10 multi-strikeout games and struck out at least once in 26 of his 35 games with Toronto. He walked only five times in that span.
Even though his first impression wasn’t a good one, Rasmus still has all the tools that made him one of the most touted prospects in baseball. He has made mechanical adjustments to his swing which are reportedly to the liking of hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and Rasmus will have every opportunity to make an impact over the course of this season. If he can return to his 2010 form, Rasmus will be a force at the top of the Jays lineup.
How good is Brett Lawrie?
Lawrie almost defied logic for the Jays in his stint with the big club after being acquired from Milwaukee for Shaun Marcum prior to the 2011 season. Lawrie had been universally considered one of the top hitting prospects in baseball before joining Toronto, but reported attitude problems in the Brewers system and his age made his future anything but clear-cut. Despite the skepticism, Lawrie dominated with Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas before finally being called up in August. The way he finished the season was simply electric.
Lawrie held his own against big league pitching from his first game and finished the season with a .953 OPS. While Lawrie has clearly shown that he has the capacity to be a quality hitter, he is far from a polished product. His 171 plate appearances are a decent sample of what we can expect from him, but it will be enough for opposing pitchers to develop a book on him and consequently it is not enough time for a definitive career outlook.
With all these factors in mind, if Lawrie’s production can bear a favorable resemblance to the numbers he produced during his rookie season it will only be a matter of time before he forces Farrell to put him in the lineup slots around Bautista. Lawrie’s production at the bottom of the order was fantastic for Toronto in 2011, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to produce at that rate over the span of a full season.
Does the additional Wild Card spot change the Jays’ outlook?
It’s tempting for Toronto fans to think that the playoffs are practically a reality with the addition of this new Wild Card playoff format. The development opens up the potential for a third playoff team out of the AL East and it stands to reason that as a team on the rise, Toronto figures into these plans nicely.
Not so fast.
Let’s not forget that there are legitimately—on paper, at least—four playoff calibre teams in the AL East, with Baltimore being the lone outlier. Even if Toronto has a great season, the Jays still have to beat out one of the Yankees, Rays or Red Sox for third in the division. Moreover, the added spot is just as attainable for teams in other divisions. With a close race between the Angels and Rangers in the West, one of those two could easily earn one of the spots, as could the second place team in the Central. A revamped system is far from a stroll into the playoffs for the Blue Jays.
That being said, it does get the ball rolling. The odds of the team making the postseason are increased which, in turn, gets fans more interested which, in theory at least, will lead to an increase in baseball revenues for ownership. The team needs to open its wallet going forward as it adds pieces, and the Jays’ high end prospects ideally become quality starting lineup players. The cost of the team will increase, and while the Rogers ownership is well off financially, the prospect of taking extra money from the baseball revenue stream only increases the odds of the franchise spending more.
It’s amazing how one game of baseball can change everything.
What we see when we take a look at these Blue Jays issues is clear: This franchise is not far off from being a real noisemaker in the American League. Depending on how a few of the scenarios we looked at play out, that could be much sooner than anticipated.